Duchess Theatre, London WC2
  Opened 23 February, 2009

Watching the venerable theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh’s first full-length play, which centres on the 1953 arrest of John Gielgud for a homosexual “cottaging” offence, one word kept springing to my mind: Honeyrose. Not a term of gay code, but a brand of tobacco-free cigarettes such as often used onstage. Although they maintain the visual illusion, the extraordinarily pervasive pong ruins the rest of it. The Honeyrose fug which enveloped the Duchess stage seemed to me emblematic of much of de Jongh’s writing, particularly in the first act. He enjoys both the absurdity with which he portrays the Conservative government’s anti-homosexual crusade and the outrage in his indictment of figures such as Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe and the odious Lord Chief Justice Goddard; but there is something confected and ostentatious about it all, whiffing of the same sense of moral superiority that these persecutors felt in themselves, and it breaks the spell.
If the entire play were in this register, it would only ever be preaching to the choir. Thankfully, de Jongh shows a much more sympathetic touch with those characters, er, with whom he is in sympathy. His Gielgud, beneath the epigrams and the legendary gaffes, is given an almost touching timidity about the prosecution and its aftermath; we also see a young civil servant and a then-underage public schoolboy coming to terms with their own sexuality as a result of the case. Tamara Harvey’s production (recast since its premiere at the tiny Finborough pub theatre last year) and Alex Marker’s set design cope fluidly with the plentiful scene changes required by the script’s surprisingly televisual scenic structure.
Michael Feast is an actor I love, and this outing is no exception; he uses just the right amount of impersonation of that clipped, precise Gielgud voice to leaven his exploration of the character. Celia Imrie makes an agreeable Dame Sybil Thorndike, although five years younger than Feast and playing someone more than 20 years older than Gielgud. David Burt relishes a number of cameos from a waiter in a gay club to a discreet lavatory attendant. But there is often a sense that the author is trying to have his cake and eat it, as when a character condemns as a “ghastly little gossip sheet” the Evening Standard, for which de Jongh now writes. The chuckle is a smug one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage